Turkey, acting together with the rotating Arab League leader Qatar, is pressing diverse Syrian opposition groups to unite as it hosts a two-day meeting of Syrian opposition groups in İstanbul ahead of a key international gathering on April 1.
“This is by far the most significant meeting as far as the Syrian opposition is concerned,” a Turkish official told journalists on Monday. The meeting, which began on Monday, will produce a “pact” outlining the Syrian opposition's political vision for the future of the conflict-torn country, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
About 200 representatives from Syria's different ethnic, sectarian, religious and political groups are joining the İstanbul talks. Invitations have even been sent to representatives of the Nusayri (Alawite) sect, to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. The only group left out of the two-day meeting on Monday and Tuesday is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) because of its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist group. According to Turkish officials, the pro-Assad PYD has no place either at the İstanbul meeting or in the future of Syria.
The meeting comes as Ankara announced that it has temporarily closed its embassy in Damascus, a further sign that Turkey is moving away from the Syrian regime and towards closer contact with the opposition. Officials cited deteriorating security conditions in Syria as the main reason for suspending all activities at the embassy, but although Ankara severed diplomatic ties with Damascus, the consulate-general in the northern city of Aleppo remains open. Officials in Ankara said the consulate will remain open as a sign of continuing links with Syria. They added that the consulate in Aleppo also has a symbolic importance for Syrian independence, because it was opened during the time when Syria was still a French colony.
Turkey, once a close ally of Assad, has sharpened its criticism of the regime's brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Ankara is convinced that the Assad regime will eventually collapse, given that the Syrian people have “overcome their fears and are determined” to bring the regime down, the official said on Monday. But doubts about the ability of the Syrian opposition to act as a united front lead to concerns over a protracted civil war between Assad loyalists and opposition forces. The largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC) -- which formed in İstanbul in September of last year -- was recognized last month by the anti-Assad “Friends of Syria” coalition as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition,” but infighting and worries over the group’s inclusiveness have kept the group from being seen as the sole voice of a growing Syrian opposition movement.
The emergence of a united Syrian opposition is crucial ahead of the “Friends of Syria” meeting of the United States, Arab and European countries on April 1 to discuss further action against Damascus, which has rebuffed international calls for a ceasefire. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said last week that Turkey would work with the SNC to “strengthen its social base,” while voices within the council have said the meeting could offer a chance for the group to be recognized as the country’s legitimate opposition movement.
The SNC saw a major blow to its legitimacy when five members left the group last week, citing frustrations over its progress and leadership. Among them were Haitham al-Maleh and Kamal al-Labwani, two of the country’s most ardent and widely known dissidents. SNC member Khaled Khodja told Today’s Zaman over the weekend that the meeting on Monday and Tuesday would aim at developing a “unified political message” among the SNC and a coalition of smaller parties collectively known as the National Change Current (NCC).
The NCC, formed by Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights President Ammar al-Qurabi in late February, brings together the liberal-inclined National Movement for Change with the Liberation and Construction Block, led by influential tribal leader Nawaf al-Bashir; the Islamist Movement for the Fatherland; the Turkmen National Bloc and the Kurdish Movement for a New Life.
Free Syrian Army to receive orders from political leadership
Apparently in an attempt to address complaints over the current leadership of the SNC, Ankara expects that the meeting of the Syrian opposition groups will produce an agreement on establishing an “assembly” to act as the political leadership, rather than a structure based on the leadership of a certain person. The main armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, will also be reporting to that political leadership. The aim, according to the official, is to get rid of a gang-like structure of opposition forces acting out of coordination with each other, and instead create a coordinated, transparent opposition with clearly defined objectives.
Ankara expects that this political authority will be recognized by the international community as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Ankara says the opposition groups should ensure respect for the rights of different ethnic, religious and sectarian groups so as to prevent the opposition forces from seeking revenge on pro-regime groups in a post-Assad era.
Arms transfer and ‘non-lethal’ aid to opposition
The İstanbul meeting is also crucial with regards to the possible transfer of arms to the Syrian opposition. Ankara hopes the leadership structure to emerge from the meeting will also have decisive powers in determining who will get weapons to be given as aid and for what purposes.
The meeting comes as the White House announced that Turkey and the US plan to provide “non-lethal” assistance, such as communications equipment and medical supplies, directly to opposition groups inside Syria.
The US is reluctant to see foreign military action against the Assad regime and Ankara tends to agree, saying international circumstances are not ripe for such an intervention despite calls from the SNC for a military campaign against Assad.
Iran not invited to Friends of Syria meeting
The Syrian regime’s major international and regional backers, meanwhile, remain unlikely to attend the April 1 meeting of the “Friends of Syria” meeting in İstanbul.
The official said UN Security Council members China and Russia are also unlikely to attend the meeting despite invitations from the group, while Damascus’s close regional ally, Iran, has not been invited.
Ankara says the Syrian opposition is facing an asymmetrical military challenge because Iran and Russia continue to provide arms to President Bashar al-Assad, while the opposition has failed to convince its international backers to do the same for them.
Ankara also believes that Iran transfers arms to Syria via Iraq despite Iraqi statements to the contrary. The official said Iran has been told in diplomatic contexts that it will be on the losing side if it sides with Assad. Aware of the risks that could stem from Assad’s fall, Iran is working hard to ensure Assad receives maximum support.